Andrew Bovell’s play Speaking in Tongues is probably the closest thing we will ever see to a David Lynch movie onstage. The similarities are striking: The script is rife with sexuality, menace, the terror of the unsaid. Act I introduces a quartet of characters, two couples involved in mutual adulteries, then the action veers off in another direction in Act II, focusing on another characters; however, everyone, we learn is linked—sort of—by an apparent act of violence. Most of all, Mark Clements’ production, which runs through January 20 at the Gramercy Theatre, Roundabout Theatre’s Off Broadway venue, had an eerie, dreamlike aura, made up of dark glossy surfaces and strange projected images. It’s altogether appropriate, then, that Speaking in Tongues featured scenery by Richard Hoover, whose résumé includes Twin Peaks, Lynch’s cult TV series about weird doings in the Pacific Northwest. Working with projection designer Elaine J, McCarthy, Hoover gave Speaking in Tongues a darkly glamorous look with pronounced undertones of dread.
Bovell is an Australian playwright but, for the purposes of this production, the action was relocated to what the program describes as "a coastal city in the United States." Hoover says, "We picked Jacksonville, FL, as a city near a swamp, a danger zone, someplace you could get lost." Then again, the action of Speaking in Tongues takes place in several locations simultaneously—homes, bars, doctor’s offices—with dialogue and long solo speeches from different scenes woven together in collage-like fashion. The big challenge was to find a setting flexible enough to accommodate these needs and also provide an appropriate setting for projected images. "We went through 10 models [of the set], looking for the right shapes," says Hoover.
What the designer eventually came up with was a two–level structure with walls made of glass and Mirrorex, a Mylar-based product. In Act I, the glass walls at stage right and left opened up at times, creating a louvered effect. In Act II, the real walls, built of Mirrorex, came together tilted upward to create a kind of cathedral ceiling. Placed behind the walls, at stage left, stage right, and rear stage center, were RP screens, where the many images McCarthy designed were projected, creating a kind of steady current of dark, disturbing visuals.
The majority of the images were shot in Jacksonville, where Hoover, McCarthy, and photographer McCaren Walsh, McCarthy’s assistant, went on a photo expedition. "We went through the script early on and talked about what we wanted," says McCarthy. "We had a shopping list of images. Once we were in Florida, Richard had his digital camera, McCaren had her traditional camera, and we just went about, hovering and shooting, guerilla-style. I schmoozed people, asking things like, ‘Can we shoot your bar?’ The majority of people responded positively, especially when they heard about the unique way the photos were to be used."
The trio arrived in Jacksonville after September 11; the city was largely abandoned by tourists, which gave it an eerie, empty quality. "We were in a large downtown hotel, the type usually filled with conference attendees," recalls McCarthy, "and they had about 12 guests." A midnight trip to a dead-end swamp road generated some shredded nerves for all three when they were approached by a pickup truck full of locals on a moonlight fishing expedition. "Our trip had a certain Lynch aspect," McCarthy adds. "We were off in the swamp. It was weird," says Hoover.
Over several days, they shot thousands of images, both digital and black-and-white slides, including roads, swamps, bits of coastal life, and objects such as ceiling fans, mirrorballs, pairs of shoes, among other items. Each image was rendered in grainy black and white, which added to its stark, arresting quality. "Richard described the images as wanting to be Weegee-esque, with the harsh flash lighting of police evidence photos," says McCarthy, invoking the name of the famous tabloid photographer, known for his gritty studies of urban nightlife and crime scenes
Next came the labor-intensive process of selecting images and placing them into the setting. As the projections and the scenery were put into the theatre, the design began to come together in new and unexpected ways. "It was originally designed so the back wall had a panoramic quality with overlapping images," says McCarthy. "But in the space, it was apparent that the side walls would create the panoramic quality and we needed height in the back. Within the environment created by the glossy, mirrored surfaces, we were able to make the images appear to float and have dimension." Hoover says the Mirrorex panels were custom-made and "the glass walls were nickel-plated on one side; if you don’t have a tinted surface, you can get a fuzzy image, with two reflections. We did tests with clear glass, then added tints. The tinting causes the light not to pass through the glass from the back surface and you get a clear image."
Clements had directed an earlier production of Speaking in Tongues in which Vari-Lite VL6™ automated luminaires were used to deliver the images. However, says Hoover, "You can’t make changes with them too quickly," so the designers went with 18 Kodak Ektapro 35mm slide projectors, with, McCarthy adds, "very short Schneider lenses. It’s essentially a one-to-one relationship; for every foot of throw there’s one foot of image size. These are incredible projectors; one of their great attributes is that, after the lamps are extinguished, they go into standby mode, and the fan goes off as well." Control of the projections was handled by a Dataton show control system
Both designers are quick to note the collaborative quality of their Speaking in Tongues experience and also point out that Brian MacDevitt’s film-noir lighting played an important role in revealing the actors and imagery in a seductive manner while avoiding the obvious pitfalls of working with projections and mirrored surfaces. "Everybody had a great trust in each other," says McCarthy. "It was good to have that team," adds Hoover.
Other members of that team included costume designer Jess Goldstein, sound designer (and composer) Scott Myers, technical supervisor Steve Beers, master technician Patrick Ryan, assistant set designers Kyeongoin Baek and Tom Donaldson, and projection programmer Paul Vershbow. The scenery was built by Exhibit Graphics.
In the meantime, Hoover and McCarthy have other projects coming up. Hoover, who, atypically, has extensive credits in both theatre and film (his Tony Award was for the 1999 production Not About Nightingales), has a new film, The Mothman Prophecies, due out early this year, starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, and Debra Messing. McCarthy has designed projections for the new Metropolitan Opera production of War and Peace, which has already been received with acclaim at the Mariinsky Theatre of Moscow.
In a plot twist worthy of Speaking in Tongues, a film version of the play, titled Lantana, opened in December to very good reviews and has been spoken of as a contender in various Academy Awards categories. It provided New York audiences with the unique opportunity to see a new play and its film adaptation in the same day. The film, which returns the action to Australia, contains an entirely new set of plot twists, making it both similar to and different from its source material—more proof that life is often like a David Lynch movie.
All photos: McCaren Walsh